Tag: agriculture

Farm Policy and Environmental Protection: It’s Time to Raise the Bar

Utah -- EllieBy Linda K. Breggin and Bruce Myers — Apr. 16 at 4:43pm

When the new Farm Bill finally passed this February, two years behind schedule, many environmental groups breathed a sigh of relief–if not outright celebrated.  In addition to other conservation provisions, the bill included a hard-fought requirement for farmers to adopt basic soil conservation measures to obtain crop insurance subsidies.  Although the soil conservation requirements aren’t new, they had not been linked to crop insurance subsidies for many years and instead were a quid pro quo only for receiving direct subsidy payments. With the new Farm Bill’s emphasis on crop insurance subsidies in lieu of direct payments to support the agriculture sector, the environmental need to tie conservation measures to crop insurance became acute.

Commonly known as “conservation compliance,” these Farm Bill provisions are aimed at reducing soil erosion by requiring farmers to develop conservation plans for what are known as highly erodible lands.  Conservation compliance has contributed to substantial reductions in soil erosion. According to USDA data, soil erosion declined by about forty percent annually from 1982 through 1997. But despite the track record of success, it took a multi-year, concerted campaign simply to apply conservation compliance to crop insurance subsidies. Environmental groups rightly see this addition to the new Farm Bill as a victory. As Steve Kline of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which helped lead the campaign, told EE News: “We are certainly going to be celebrating this bill . . . . . I do think it’s the best we can get.”

At the same time, however, conservation compliance only partially addresses the environmental consequences of large-scale commodity crop production. Not only sediment pollution, but also nutrient and pesticide pollution resulting from commodity crop operations can have harmful effects both locally and downstream. Nutrient pollution, for example, has had wide‐ranging and costly impacts—from the dead zones that form in the Gulf of Mexico and other water bodies, to polluted streams, rivers, and lakes, to contaminated drinking water.

Agriculture is the only major industrial sector that is routinely exempted from baseline environmental safeguards. This is not to say that there are no requirements in environmental laws that apply to the agriculture industry, but environmental laws are more noteworthy for their exemptions for agriculture than for their coverage of it. And while many agricultural operations do implement some stewardship practices, pollution resulting from commodity crop production remains a significant national problem.

As a result, the costs associated with the environmental impacts are not accounted for by either the seller of commodity crops (the farmer) or the purchaser (such as grain‐trading companies, meatpackers, and feedlots).  Instead, the externalized pollution costs attributable to large-scale agriculture are borne by the public.

In an HELR article last year, we made two proposals. First, to reduce the impacts of downstream pollution, we argued that large‐scale commodity crop operations that choose to accept federal subsidy payments should assume responsibility for implementing a baseline set of stewardship practices designed to minimize nutrient pollution. The aim is not to establish a significant new administrative program, but rather a workable, streamlined process for adoption of stewardship measures that can be integrated into existing subsidy program administration.

Second, to increase public access to information on the sources and quantities of nutrient pollution entering surface waters and groundwater, we recommended that large‐scale commodity crop operations publicly report on the quantity, type, and timing of fertilizers they apply.

Disclosure of fertilizer usage would increase public access to information on the sources and quantities of nutrient pollution entering surface waters and groundwater, while at the same time helping to discourage practices that result in overuse. Existing environmental disclosure programs (think Toxics Release Inventory) work in part because they cause the disclosing entity to focus on its chemicals use, which in turn can lead to opportunities for reductions – some of which can save money and increase efficiency. Reductions also occur in response to perceived public or market pressure. The goal is to generate an easy‐to‐understand dataset while minimizing the administrative burden on operators.

We proposed that these requirements be applied to large-scale commodity crop operations—farms that produce crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans and gross $500,000 dollars or more in annual sales—because as a class they represent a large share of production, can generate substantial pollution, have the potential to afford conservation measures, and receive the most federal farm subsidies.

The 2014 Farm Bill took an important step toward enhanced environmental protection by linking conservation compliance to crop insurance. And yet, much more can reasonably be expected of large-scale commodity crop operations as a condition of federal support.  If we settle for retention of current requirements, we risk setting the bar too low.

The uncertain future of Farm Bill conservation programs

By Margaret Wilson Reis — Sept. 17, 2013 at 10:30am

LAND_Hamburg IA_SCaravelloOn September 30, 2013, the one-year extension of the 2008 Farm Bill will expire. Congress appears unlikely to pass another. If Congress does not, the country stands to see the “single, largest source of funding for conservation on private U.S. land” reduced or even eliminated.

The Farm Bill is the primary food and agriculture legislation in the United States, and it affects many aspects of the US food production system. First established during the Great Depression, the Farm Bill is set for renewal every five years. The most recent update occurred in 2008.  While the impacts of the bill range far and wide, the Farm bill has profound impacts on environmental stewardship and conservation in the US. (For a detailed discussion of those impacts, check out the recent article by Linda Breggin and Bruce Myers in Vol. 37.2 of HELR.) One key aspect of the Farm Bill’s environmental impact is its maintenance of environmental programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which are essential in defending against both soil erosion and water pollution from farm operations exempt from the Clean Water Act.

Although Congress never reauthorized the 2008 Farm Bill, some of its provisions were extended through September 30, 2013. This extension continued mandatory funding for various farm bill programs, but it did not provide funding for the environmental programs that lacked a mandatory funding baseline continuing beyond 2012. Thus, while the 2008 Farm Bill allocated $24 billion to conservation and environmental programs, many of these have remained without funding throughout 2013. If Congress opts for another extension rather than a new comprehensive bill, the conservation and environmental programs negatively impacted by the 2012 extension will likely continue to go unfunded. This lack of funding will threaten the efficacy, if not the very existence of such programs.

Congress has at least attempted to pass a new farm bill, but it’s not much better for conservation and environmental objectives. The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act, passed by the Senate in June would cut conservation funding by about $3.5 billion and consolidate various programs into larger umbrella programs (however, it would at least require conservation compliance for receipt of crop insurance subsidies). The House’s version of the bill would cut conservation programs by $5 billion and would not require conservation compliance. While the House initially voted down the bill, it later passed a pared down version that removed the nutrition title. These current proposed reforms represent a step up from a total lack of funding for conservation programs, but they would allow farmers who do not implement conservation measures to receive subsidies regardless, and are far from ideal.

With little time remaining before September 30 and the crisis in Syria having taken much of Congress’ attention, it seems unlikely that a comprehensive bill will be passed before the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill extension at the end of this month. If Congress does manage to pass a new bill, it will likely be one that weakens conservation programs for the next five years. The future is looking bleak for Farm Bill conservation programs.

Subsidies with Responsibilities: Placing Stewardship and Disclosure Conditions on Government Payments to Large Scale Commodity Crop Operations

By Linda Breggin and D. Bruce Myers Jr.

The last century marked a sea change in the way agricultural operations are conducted. This “industrialization” of agriculture has significantly increased efficiency and yields, but it also has generated — as an unintended byproduct — pollution. The pollution resulting from commodity crop operations can have harmful effects locally and downstream. Typically, when the production of a good generates adverse environmental effects, the firm that profits from the activity is required to minimize the impacts. This is rarely the case in the agriculture sector, which is exempt from key provisions of the federal environmental laws. As a result, the harms are externalized and the public bears the pollution costs. The federal taxpayer also supports the agricultural sector through myriad farm subsidy programs. Large-scale farms — those with annual sales of $500,000 or more — represented six percent of U.S. farms in 2009 but received more than half of government commodity payments. These subsidy recipients typically are not required as a condition of receiving payments to implement measures that will protect the environment from pollution generated by on-farm activities. The authors present two recommendations for reform, neither of which would require additional federal subsidy payments. First, large-scale commodity crop operations that opt to receive any form of federal farm subsidy should assume responsibility for implementing a set of baseline stewardship measures to reduce nutrient pollution. Second, these same farms should report on the quantity, type, and timing of fertilizers they apply.

Cite as: Linda Breggin and D. Bruce Myers Jr., Subsidies with Responsibilities: Placing Stewardship and Disclosure Conditions on Government Payments to Large Scale Commodity Crop Operations, 37 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 487 (2013).

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